Monday, October 17, 2011

Sermon ~ Proper 24, Year A

Sermon for Proper 24, Year A - October 16, 2011
Text: Matthew 22:15-22
Vicki Hesse, Seminarian

Sometimes it helps to ask a child.

When asked, what it means that  
God created human beings in God’s image,
Eight-year-old Rachael
gave some keen insight.

First, she asked a clarifying question,
“What’s an image?”

“Ummm,” Grandpa replied, “something like a photograph.”

“Oh,” Rachel thought.
“That’s strange.  God is invisible. 
How could there be a photograph of God?” 

Grandpa remained silent
while Rachael thought about this.  
Her wheels turned.
“Maybe…maybe it’s more like God is in the image of human beings.”
“Only it couldn’t be just one human being,
it would have to be lots…”
“…And they’re all different. 
Each one is different,
like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. 
So you would have to fit all the pieces together…”
“…Then they would be a community,
and a community is more like God.”

The insight of this eight-year old
could easily stand alongside any commentary
about how to understand God’s image. 

In the puzzling text we hear today,
this eight-year-old gives insight to
what it means to put our faith community's
mission puzzle pieces together:
joyous, growing, inviting, and caring.

The Gospel text we heard took place
while Jesus was visiting the temple,
on his journey to Jerusalem.

Up to this point, the chief priests and elders
had questioned Jesus’ authority. 
So as we enter the picture this week,
we understand there was already some tension –
an ongoing controversy
between Jesus and the Pharisees.

In this scene, the Pharisees had joined forces
with the Herodians
to ask Jesus a question.

Isn’t that puzzling that there,
in the temple,
there appeared two factions
that otherwise would be at odds
with each other,
but both wanted to entrap Jesus. 

They asked him a question,
prefaced by flattery and
were a bit obvious, as well,
repeating Jesus’ own words
(from the parable we heard last week),
“What do you think?” in posing their question. 

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

Jesus was aware of their evil intent,
and called them on it, those hypocrites.
First, he asked why they were testing him,
hearkening back to Deuteronomy
“do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Second, Jesus knew that
no one who claimed to follow religious laws
should have had a coin with an image
in the temple; that was sacrilege.

So, Jesus said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”
They replied, “The Emperor’s.”

It’s helpful background to note that
the word Emperor is the noun used
in the bible translation
by our church. 

However, in the Greek,
the word used is actually Caesar. 

Caesar was specific Emperor
whose image was accompanied
by an inscription considered
blasphemous by the Jews:
“Tiberius Caesar,
august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.”

In addition, the tax
was a specific census- or head-tax
that was quite oppressive.

One could only pay that specific tax with that specific coin.

So, when he said to them,
“Whose head is this, and whose title?”
and they replied,
“The Emperor’s,” the tension rose. 

Jesus knew it was a trick–
they intended to trap him.

If he said to pay the tax,
he would alienate the Pharisees
and would be persecuted
as a collaborator with the government. 

If he said not to pay the tax,
he would alienate the Herodians
and would be arrested for sedition.  
It was a political conundrum. 

How could Jesus have pleased both factions,
not taken sides,
and stayed true to his faith?

How can we please
competing factions in our lives,
while staying true to our faith?   
Isn’t that puzzling?

We may feel trapped,
as if two (or more) groups
have plotted against us,
forcing us to prove our allegiance
to one faction or another. 
We use coins that say
“In God We Trust”
and yet we rely
on our own strength. 

Each of us has complex choices to make. 
Sometimes these choices are
between the good and the better. 
We feel trapped when we have to choose. 

The choice might be
“spend extra time at work to meet a deadline” or
“leave early to enjoy the family.” 
The choice might be
“visit the in-laws for the holidays” or
“stay home and participate in a church event.”
The choice might be
“volunteer at Arlington Food Assistance Center” or
“attend a bible study.”

Sometimes these choices are
moral dilemmas.  

The choice might be
“accept how my cousin uses hateful language” or
“stand up for the respect and dignity of all persons and confront my cousin to stop spreading hate.”

The choice might be
“step back away from this person of whom I fear,” or
“step forward towards this person and engage in meaningful conversation, seeking Christ in them.”  

Many people today feel trapped. 
How do we fit the puzzle pieces together?
How do we respond?

Jesus responded. 
He said, “Give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s
and to God the things that are God’s.” 

Jesus said, in effect,
it was not unlawful and
not against the Torah. 

He saw the trap they set
and liberated the Pharisees and the Herodians
from their small way of thinking.

Now, imagine that after saying
“Give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s,”
he paused. 

Imagine he put his arm around the questioner,
looked at him, loved him. 

Then, with a wink and a slight hug, he offered,
“and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus didn’t choose either/or, he showed the both/and. 

It’s all of God; especially you, dear questioner. 

Jesus showed that
God’s image appeared
in the midst of this
messy human scene,
in the midst of the mixed up
puzzle pieces strewn about in tension and
now filled with grace. 

In a moment of compassion,
Jesus reminded them
that the world belongs to God. 

Jesus knew the scriptures,
and without mentioning it
probably had on his mind
Isaiah’s affirming words –
from the last lines of today’s first reading,
“I am the Lord, there is no other. 
I form light and darkness, weal and woe. 
I am the Lord, I do all these things.”

In a scene filled with God’s grace,
Jesus transformed the challenge;
he showed the picture on the outside of the puzzle box. 

He replied, in essence,
“Caesar can stamp his picture
and pedigree on the coin,
but Caesar can’t come close
to the true commerce
that animates the world.
Caesar’s image conveys oppression and power-over. 
Anyone can do that. 
Recognizing what is God’s image
Takes real compassion.” 

Jesus reminded them that
God had imprinted God’s image
on each of them
(and of course on every human being).
When the Pharisees and Herodians
knew what he meant,
that all people are
to give their whole selves to God
and only dross to Caesar,
they went away to think again.

Do we know what Jesus meant?
How do we respond?
How do we fit the puzzle pieces together?

Through God in Christ, we are liberated from the trap. 
It’s not one or the other, it’s both/and. 

God created everything that is,
including each “Caesar” and each “faction”
that might give us angst. 

To give to God what is God’s
begins with noticing God in everything. 

Noticing God’s joyous incarnation in every person we meet.  Noticing God’s growing revelation
in this community.
Noticing God’s invitation to love each other deeply.
Noticing God’s care for this community to sustain it for more than sixty years through thick and thin. 

What is God’s?  It’s all God’s.

Jesus invites us today
to look at the puzzle image on the box
as our community,
a joyous, growing, inviting, and caring community…
These four are the corner pieces of
our community jigsaw puzzle. 

Joyously, we continue in the apostles’ teaching
and fellowship, breaking bread and praying.

Growing, we proclaim by word and example
the Good News of God in Christ.

Inviting, we seek and serve Christ in all persons,
loving our neighbor as ourselves.

And caring, we strive for justice and peace
among all people,
respecting the dignity of every human being.

Underneath and throughout our community
is the kiss of light in our eyes
and the watery sign of the cross on our foreheads. 
This is what we give back to God. 

All of our joyous, growing, inviting, caring faces
are together the images of the divine that God sees. 

The 8-year old Rachael in our opening story
challenges us
to look at connecting individual puzzle pieces
into God’s image,
into God’s community. 

The divine image is not fulfilled
by unique puzzle-piece images,
until they fit together. 

The sacred individual,
the sacred community,
the sacred resistance to the tyranny of Caesar…
when we place all these puzzles together,
we think again about God, the Image,
the community,
and the jigsaw puzzle of humanity and earth and heaven.

All things come of thee, O God,
and of thine own have we given thee.


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